More Rain, More Jazz

Harking back to my comments last fall about rainy days and jazz, I find that this week represents another interesting combination of music and weather. We’ve been having typical Virginia summer thunderstorms and the precipitation at this time of year, combined with milder temperatures, is actually very pleasant (barring downed trees and power outages). The music that accompanied my commutes in the rain was the two CD set of the Ahmad Jamal Cross Country Tour: 1958-1961 live recordings.

I first listened to it a couple of years ago, but it took some time for Jamal’s style to grow on me. It is not the classical approach of artists like Red Garland or Billy Taylor, who grew up in an era dominated by pre-bob and vocal jazz. Jamal (b. 1930) represented the next generation of bebop artists. In these recordings he is more improvisational than earlier musicians, yet he does not push the envelop too far. He offers just enough experimentation to make the tracks interesting while offering nuances that you would not find with other pianists. The tunes remain essentially smooth and melodious.

The recordings include tracks from his 1958 Live at the Pershing debut, with the lead song “But Not for Me.” His rendition of “Moonlight in Vermont” is another favorite and I would be hard-pressed to say which I prefer – his or Billy Taylor’s straighter bebop version. The rhythmic and soothing “Poinciana” highlights the unique cadence of the trio. My only complaint is that at times the piano is too subdued. And that may simply have to do with the recording techniques. I prefer that the bass and drums remain unambiguously in the background. A few tracks are rather frenetic – “I’ll Remember April” – or even trite – “Billy Boy.” In the latter case, that is not the fault of Jamal’s artistry but of the composer.

These, however, are minor criticisms and hardly detract from what is undoubtedly a favorite set of recordings. I would also single out the tracks on the second disc “The Party’s Over” and “Snowfall.” In the first named song the refrain is developed into a motif that repeats itself subtly and poignantly as part of what Jamal has cleverly expanded into a much larger jazz composition. “Snowfall” is a wonderful thematic/seasonal piece that seems to presage Vince Guaraldi’s experiments in that direction with his famous Charlie Brown soundtracks on autumn and winter themes.

For more notes on jazz, see my related commentaries.

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